Other Writings

Prefatory Remarks

The two articles of this section are outgrowths of my two books. The following passage adapted from A Brand New Mind lays out the intellectual background for what came about:

The possibility that culture has evolved on its own presented itself in my previous book Carl Jung, Darwin of the Mind. In trying to envision how the stages of myth,  as laid out in Erich Neumann’s magisterial The Origins and History of Consciousness, could track the advance of culture, I came to the conclusion that culture did indeed evolve, and in a way, different from, although analogous to, genetic natural selection. The field of selection was a competition among cultural styles.

I had read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene with great admiration and mentioned, not really knowing what to do with it, his concept of the meme as a thing akin to a gene, which replicates itself in the exchange between human minds, with variation and subject to selection pressures. (See The Meme  Machine  by Susan Blackmore). While recognizing that the concept of a meme embraces the prospect that culture could evolve in its own way, I could not get my head around what sort of unit might constitute a meme. Was it a word, a novel, or the concept of the novel? Adding the idea of a memeplex simply presented the problem on a larger scale. In the end, it seemed to me that, even if some appropriate unit might be arrived at, the concept itself was either too amorphous to be of use or too concrete, too rigid, to accommodate something as fluid and indeterminate as large scale social movements of the sort entertained by Neumann.

I was at that point unaware of further scholarly work that affords more congenial underpinnings for an evolution of cultural styles. In 1996 Matt Ridley published a book called The Origins of Virtue.

Of it, Dawkins is quoted on the cover of my edition as saying in The Times Literary Supplement that “If my The Selfish Gene were to have a Volume Two devoted to humans, The Origins of Virtue is pretty much what I think it ought to look like”. Ridley took a view that accepts culture just as we see it to be, and he develops the idea that, like genes, it replicates itself, with change, across generations:

What makes human beings different is culture. Because of the human practice of passing on traditions, customs, knowledge, and beliefs by direct infection from one person to another, there is a whole new kind of evolution going on in human beings — a competition not between genetically different individuals or groups, but between culturally different individuals or groups. One person may thrive at the expense of another not because he has better genes, but because he knows or believes something of practical value (Ridley, 1996, pp.179-180).

This insight Ridley attributes to the work, begun in the 1980s, of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, whose work on culture informs much of A Brand New Mind:  Not by Genes Alone and The Origin and Evolution of Cultures.

For my comments on the two articles themselves, go to  Essay Book Review in Theory & Psychology and Göbekli Article, respectively.